South Dakota has received more applications from residents seeking help to pay heating bills than it did last winter, and expanded eligibility guidelines could push demand even higher.
Eligibility for the federally funded Low Income Energy Assistance Program and the amount of help paying heat bills is based on household size and income, heat source, and location in the state. The program makes payments directly to the utility company for natural gas, propane, electricity or fuel oil.
This year, households with income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level can qualify under new eligibility guidelines that took effect Nov. 10. The ceiling last winter was 160 percent.
Last year, 18,800 South Dakota households received assistance. As of this week, 19,083 households had applied.
"We would assume that by increasing the eligibility guidelines we'd increase the number of people who would be able to benefit from the program, and that's really the goal," said Tarah Jahnig, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services, which administers the program.
Hugh Grogan, Minnehaha County's director of human services in Sioux Falls, said his agency and other assistance agencies have seen a steady increase in demand for different kinds of help in the past year.
"Last year we spent $158,560 on utility (heat, electric, water, sewer) assistance," Grogan said. "This year, with one month to go, we're at $205,622, so we've had a big increase."
"We do try to get people hooked into the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIEAP), so this new federal money and the increase in the income guidelines will be very beneficial to the state as a whole."
A family of four with a three-month income of $11,025 or less would qualify for LIEAP. The limit for a single-person household is $5,415.
The program received $25.5 million for LIEAP last year, an increase of $11.8 million from the previous winter.
The department has received an initial allocation of $17.2 million and Congress is expected to authorize more, Jahnig said. Another $3 million is available for Indian communities through other programs.
Program sign-up begins annually in October. Natural gas and electric bills are paid for meter readings between Oct. 1 and May 15. Fuel oil and propane costs are covered for deliveries between July 1 and April 30, Jahnig said.
Available money is provided on a first-come basis to applicants.
"There are other states that do it on a waiting list but usually in South Dakota we've had enough funding for the people who have applied and are eligible," said Jahnig.